TORONTO — Getting skated out of two rinks by a group of players age 23 and younger was the best thing to happen to Team Europe.
“I thank the kids for spanking us so hard because we had adversity early, which brought us together and clarified what we needed to do,” coach Ralph Krueger said.
Melding together players from eight countries wasn’t an easy job, but post-spanking Team Europe shut out the United States 3-0 on Saturday in the World Cup of Hockey opener. The upset, a shocker on paper, gives Europe a very real chance of getting out of Group A and advancing to the semifinals.
“It set us up for some fun now in the tournament,” Krueger said. “We didn’t just come here to have one nice game. We’ve come here to compete and to be around next weekend.”
Krueger said Saturday afternoon that his players were “ready to look America in the eyes.” A team thrown together from Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Norway, France and Slovenia didn’t look like it could hang with the deep Americans, but Europe was opportunistic and efficient.
“We realize we can’t really run and gun with teams and (our plan is) staying patient and waiting for our chances and help our goalie out and all those things,” captain Anze Kopitar said. “It’s not the flashiest thing. It’s actually pretty boring, but it works.”
Despite self-inflicted mistakes from roster construction and lineup decisions to poor execution and ill-timed turnovers, the U.S. credited Europe for putting together a winning recipe. Slovakia’s Jaroslav Halak made all the saves in goal while on the wrong side of a 35-17 shot differential, but Europe helped limit the quality scoring chances to almost none.
Exhibition play against 23-and-under Team North America and Sweden gave Europe enough time to blend together on and off the ice. Krueger noticed players sitting at separate nation tables for meals early on but began integrating to the point where “you don’t know who’s from where anymore.”
On the ice, Europe looked like a team in the purest sense of the word.
“We stayed as a unit of five, and I think the key is staying most of the time out of the (penalty) box,” said Halak, who was playing his first meaningful game since March because of a groin injury. “For the most part even tonight that’s what we did.”
Gifted a 2-on-0 rush by Patrick Kane on an “unacceptable” turnover, Germany’s Leon Draisaitl and Switzerland’s Nino Niederreiter looked like they had been playing together for years. Draisaitl knew to expect a pass back on an uncontested give and go, making the most of a pro hockey rarity.
Asked the last time he had a 2-on-0, Draisaitl said: “Probably sometime in Pee Wee. I probably missed it, too.”
Draisaitl didn’t miss Saturday, and neither did Slovakia’s Marian Gaborik or France’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. With goal differential a potential tiebreaker, every goal counts, and Europe will try to keep things rolling against the Czech Republic on Monday and Canada on Wednesday.
“These are going to be tough games,” Krueger said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Europe has rightfully welcomed the underdog role at the World Cup, but now it’s game on with higher expectations.
“We didn’t see ourselves as just a sideshow ever,” Krueger said. “We have a difficult challenge still ahead of us. We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
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